Revolt Over Subsidies For Campus Slackers


At the University of Texas in Austin, he became known as "Father Time." This perpetual student took courses for decades, growing gray in the process, but never quite accumulating the right credits for a degree.

While such legendary "career students" are rare, they do represent the extreme of a significant education trend: The average public university student now takes six years to earn a degree.

Life on this sprawling Texas hill-country campus, like life at most American universities, has certain idyllic qualities. For some students, the subsidized lifestyle, combined with the lofty pursuits of knowledge and culture, is hard to give up. For many others, the stay on campus is drawn out because more students are combining work and study.

But Texas may soon join a growing number of states that are adopting new ways to encourage students - who linger too long at taxpayer expense - to graduate or move on.

"To the student who after 170 semester hours still hasn't been able to earn a degree in any subject, I say enough," says Texas Comptroller John Sharp. "Taxpayers no longer should be required to subsidize that student's education. The classroom space is badly needed for those students who do want to learn, earn their degrees, and find jobs."

Mr. Sharp wants Texas to join North Carolina, Montana, Florida, and Utah. Each of those four states has already increased tuition for students with "excessive" credit hours. Some states impose a 25 percent surcharge on all credits above the average degree requirement. Others start charging in-state students the unsubsidized out-of-state tuition rate.

"We're not trying to prevent people from completing degrees who are taking courses," says Gary Barnes, a vice president at the University of North Carolina. "The purpose is to send a message that courses represent scarce resources from the taxpayers, and we want students to use those resources wisely."

As many states face demographic surges in the college-age population and financial pressures mount, legislators are being forced to look for places to save money, says Cheryl Blanco at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, Colo.

To keep higher education affordable to a large percentage of the population, state governments pay for most of the cost. At UT, for example, the annual in-state student tuition of about $1,500 covers less than 20 percent of the actual cost. The rest is paid for by taxpayers and funds raised by the university.

North Carolina began the trend toward capping subsidized credits in 1994. It will be a few more years before the state knows how well the system is working. But students are taking a new approach at registration, Mr. Barnes says.

"They're making their course selections today - and have been since '94 - with one eye on the possibility that if they take too many they will face a surcharge," says Barnes.

Yet critics of the trend to cap subsidized credit hours say it will impact serious scholars as much as the unfocused hangers-on.

"Instead of the slackers, this will end up affecting really good students who are doing double majors," says Larry Carver, associate dean for academic and student affairs at UT-Austin. The university would be better served by improving course sequences, making sure required classes are available, and providing good advising, he says. Some UT students are forced to stay on campus longer because there are no seats left for some required courses.

"This won't be affecting the people who take it easy," says Everett Lee, a double major at UT who expects to earn more than 170 credits before graduation. "I don't see why they want to penalize people who want more of an education and will end up being more productive in society. We'll be taxpayers soon and plugging it back into the Texas economy."

Matthew Peet, who is majoring in physics and aerospace engineering, says he may have to take an extra job to pay tuition if the increase goes through in Texas. "I've never heard of anyone who would like to spend more time at the university than they have to," he says. "Everybody I know wants to get out and earn money."

Barbara Euresti, director of liberal arts career services at UT, doesn't see a problem of students being lazy and wanting to "stay in college forever." Rather, she says, "these kids are not doing well financially." Often, she says, they "don't have enough money to buy a can of pop."

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